China: Report from Mike Bourne

Mike Bourne reports on his recent trip to China:  I was able to get a great deal on airline tickets, just missing the big Spring Break rush. Round-trip ran about $900, but to get the discount, I had to fly from Milwaukee to Detroit before heading west to Minneapolis, Tokyo (where everyone stops to go through customs), then Beijing.  Total time in the air, about 18 hours and two plane changes. No screaming babies on this flight, coming back was a different story.  I was happy to be traveling light. It's funny (and confusing) to cross the International Date Line. I left Milwaukee at 9:00 in the morning and arrived in Beijing the next day at 9:00 P.M. Coming back, I took off at 9:00 A.M. and arrived in Milwaukee 9 hours later, the same day, in Chicago.

My host from the university, not speaking a word of English, picked us up at the airport and drove an hour to the home of friends who had a room to spare. Thankfully, my Chinese friend Shanhui met us at the airport. The following day, I was on a lecture tour of the campus. The week was filled with teaching classes, a radio interview, and listening to hours of thesis presentations and dinners in some of the best restaurants. I'll be back in summer to write for the book we're producing, review and grade Master's theses.....boring! Thankfully, Shanhui kept up with my questions and filled in the conversation gaps.

The weekend was more exciting. Two students escorted us to downtown Beijing. We toured the shopping district were I stayed last Spring, shopped like a mad man. We toured Tienanman Square and shot tons of photos. Shanhui and I worked out a great deal, she needed a computer and I needed a new camera, so we swapped. How does $700  for a $1,200 computer sound? And, $500 for a $800 camera? The deal worked out great, as I needed a place to stay and a 3-star hotel could have run $1,000 for two weeks. According to Chinese law, unless you're a guest of someone local, all foreigners must stay in at least a 3-star hotel. It was really fun taking the students to a Mr. Pizza and filling them up with Mexican pizza. We did a lesson on eating with a fork and knife. I learned to eat well enough with chopsticks,

I've learned to like the suburbs much better than downtown. All-in-all, over the course of two weeks, I saw no more than a handful of lao wei (foreigners), for staying in the big city, that was pretty good. Of course, Beijing has a population of 13+ million, a person could be anywhere and not see tourists. Beijing is one huge construction area, all in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. The economy has never been stronger. About 2:00 in the afternoon a concrete dust cloud hangs over the city. All of the poor neighborhoods are being razed and 200 unit apartment buildings are going up everywhere. The national bird should be a "construction crane."

The city feels so safe. I was able to walk all hours of the day and night with no concern. In all the time I've visited, I've yet to see a gun store. Even few of the police and security guards carry guns. In the downtown, there are Red Army guards hanging around to quell trouble, mostly from thieves. The Guard looks really handsome in their green and red uniforms. Those who carry guns have the home-made equivalent of new U.S. made M-1-A1 assault rifles. I wouldn't want to mess with them, or the ones with only night-sticks. They're all trained in Whusu, Kung Fu.

Week two was filled with apartment hunting for Shanhui and her daughter. They're moved to Beijing for Shanhui to work for the college until her paperwork is processed to visit America, in August. If you think apartment hunting is challenging here, try doing it in China. The cool part is, for a small fee ($4.00) you can go to an house-hunter and leaf through tons of listings. When you pick one, a car arrives at the door to take you to see it. Only the most expensive apartments are cleaned by the previous renters. We found a great one, hard wood floors, balcony view, marble kitchen counter, sofa and chairs, coffee table, shower, freezer/fridge, washer/dryer, tv (w/cable included), for about $120 a month (gas and air conditioning included). Cleaning an inch of dust off everything sucked, but then the place shined.

Weekend two was the most fun. We toured the Summer Palace, former home to past emperors and empresses. Built in 1750, the 290 hectares (275 acres), estate is surrounded on three sides by's a brief description from the tourist brochure:  The Summer Palace is located in the northwestern suburbs of Beijing. It used to be the imperial garden and residence during the Qing Dynasty. Constructed in 1750, the Summer Palace grew out of the Garden of Clear Ripples. In 1860, the Summer Palace was burnt down by the Anglo-French Allied Forces. In 1886, Empress Dowager CiXi embezzled the money budgeted for the navy and other funds to restore the Garden of Clear Ripples and changed its name to the Summer Palace in 1888. In 1900, the Summer Palace was devastated a second time by the Eight-Power Allied Forces, and it was rebuilt in 1902.

Composed of Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake, the Summer Palace covers 290.8 hectares, about three-fourth of which are covered by the lake. It has more than 3,000 buildings including halls, pavilions, towers and courtyards. The Summer Palace can be roughly divided into three areas: the Palace area, the residential area and the scenic area. Empress Dowager Cixi spent most of her later years here, governing the country" behind the screen". The residential area is strewn with spacious courtyards and winding corridors. The main buildings in this area include the Hall of jade Ripples, the Hall of Happiness in Longevity and the Yiyun Hall. This is the place where emperors and empresses resided.

The scenic area is a place where the rulers spent their leisure time. Here, the bills, the lake, the buildings and flowers blend into one. The Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha, which is nestled in the hills and faces the lake, dominates the Summer Palace; the Seventeen-Arch Bridge flies over the wide expanse of the misty lake like a rainbow; the West Causeway runs through the lake, which is linked by six bridges of different shapes. The back hills and back lake are green and lush with tall pines and cypresses; the slope is dotted with bustling shops and restaurants; the sparkling lake mirrors the reflection of the imperial palaces, which are silhouetted against the West Hill and jade Fountain Hill. Cleverly laid out and exquisitely constructed, the Summer Palace is known as the "museum of imperial gardens". it epitomizes China's gardening art. The Summer Palace was open to the public as the private property of the Qing Court in 1914, and in 1924 it was converted into a park. In 1961, the Summer Palace was among the first cultural relics that were listed under protection by the State Council. In 1992, the Summer Palace was chosen as "a well-preserved imperial garden with rich man-made landscapes and a high concentration of ancient buildings". The main buildings in the Summer Palace have been restored to their original splendour, and all exhibition rooms have opened. In addition, the imperial pleasure boats are at service of tourists. In recent years, the Four Great Regions, the Suzhou Street and the Pavilion of Bright Scenery have been restored and opened to tourists. The Summer Palace is a tourist spot famous for its natural beauty, elegant gardening art and exquisite historical relics.

Mike continues:Leaving Beijing, I got to see the outskirts of the city, with very little traffic. A taxi picked me up at 6:00 A.M. Getting a taxi in Beijing is an interesting process. The taxes on taxis' are so high, most of them operate illegally, with no signs on their top. Transportation anywhere in the city is 10 yuan, about $1.35. The trick to getting a cab is to stand on a street corner, looking like you need to go somewhere. A car will pull up and, of course you want to know he's a legitimate/illegal cab. Ordinary people pull up for a tourist and charge 100 yuan for a long trip around the city and delivery you back to the same street corner where you started out. So, once you find a legitimate cabbie with a clean car, you get his cell phone number and arrange rides a day ahead. The cab ride from my apartment to the airport was a legitimate 160 yuan ($18), including tolls, about 60 km.

Beijing city is surrounded by 5 layers of express by--passes. Something like Atlanta will be in another 100 years. You can choose any of the rings to drive in, but the closer to the inner city, the heavier the slow traffic. The big trucks use the outer ring because most of the factories are on the outskirts. The national bird (construction crane) is everywhere. We passed one nuclear power plant, I was told there are two others on other routes, just to feed the city. What surprised me was, with all that power available, the heat in all public buildings if off from March 15 to the middle of November. We wore coats and sweaters a lot in school. Of course, with near year-round school, every building that can afford it, has air conditioning. Looking at the size of the city from the outskirts, it's difficult to imagine Beijing is only the 20th largest city in the world. Shanghai, the largest, is nearly twice it's size. 

Here are some interesting web sites:
Not that I'm a fan, the CIA web site has a lot of facts and figures:

Ronald Hilton 2005


last updated: June 8, 2005